Collection’s energy, depth springs from B.C. history

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October 14, 2014

What I Want to Tell Goes Like This

By Matt Rader

Published by Nightwood Editions

256 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Erin Anderson

After three books of poetry, Matt Rader has unveiled his first fiction collection, the title of which conveys the sense of purpose behind each work in this enthralling assortment of stories.

Rader’s stories inhabit a land dominated both by natural beauty and industry. Despite events being set 100 years apart in some cases, what binds the stories is a shared – if altered – landscape. Rader populates his vision of western North America with characters who seem estranged not only from the people closest to them but from their own selves. Yet, they question unrelentingly their own place in the world and their ultimate legacy.

His protagonists, mostly male, are miners, truck drivers, activists. Living often simple existences, these men doubt their own goodness, their motivations, even their most basic identity. Rader reports on them with a distant, objective eye that never aspires to omniscience. When he does explore a female’s experience, he does with acuity: “First Women’s Battalion of Death” is enlivened by a well-crafted character who connects Russian history to her sister’s determination – while sitting in a beauty salon.

As the collection’s stories vary in length (from three to 43 pages), they range also in depth; some consist of a single scene in a girl’s life while others traverse the first and last years of romantic and familial pairings.

Toying with time itself and the fallibility of our own perceptions, Rader touches a few of his stories with a sort of magic realism, leaving the possibility that his characters see beyond the immediate and physical world. “Wejack,” one of the most complex stories, is an example of Rader’s ability to construct a narrative in murky circumstances. Rader displays a rare gift for teasing out the contradictory and incomplete aspects of the human mind and spirit.

Although dotted with descriptions of places and people that showcase a poet’s precision and imagination, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This demonstrates starkness and straightforwardness in its language. No detail feels extraneous and no phrase is there for beauty alone (however beautiful some may be).

Without shortchanging Rader’s style or sense of story, the most distinguishing feature of this collection may be its historical dimension. Apparently a ruthless researcher, Rader covers union uprisings and mining disasters through the lens of real people he found in B.C. archives, even going so far as to give the file name of photos he describes.

Such stories of early North America are linked only incrementally, yet their tiny overlaps convey the scope of movements that are summarized in a textbook paragraph. Historical events continue to intrigue readers due to the uncertainty surrounding characters and our own uncertainty of the events of 100 years ago.

“There is nothing inevitable about the future except that it’s coming,” says one of Rader’s characters. While his stories show that little in life is certain, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This demonstrates that Rader’s future ought to include a long career in literature.

Matt Rader will read from his new short story collection, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This, on Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at Bolen Books in Victoria, Oct. 18 at the Comox Valley Art Gallery and Oct. 19 at Nightwood Editions Vancouver Book Launch at The Grande Luxe Hall. Check Harbour Publishing for more information.

Erin Anderson is a Victoria freelancer and reviewer.

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